On Feb. 21, Iran will hold the first round of parliamentary elections that could usher in the return of a more conservative legislature. With moderates and reformists taking a back seat, such an outcome would nudge Tehran toward more hard-line and hawkish foreign policies, leaving less room for negotiation with the West amid soaring U.S.-Iran tensions. Regardless of its next ideological make-up, however, Iran's incoming parliament will struggle more than ever to answer the economic and social demands of an increasingly desperate and cash-strapped electorate — a reality that could have dire consequences for Tehran's political stability ahead of the country's crucial 2021 presidential election.
While less powerful than Iran's many unelected institutions, Tehran's 290-seat parliament plays a crucial role in fielding debate between the country's broad political spectrum. How these discussions unfold in the country's next parliament will provide a key glimpse into where Iran's political future is headed, especially in regards to its struggling economy.
Ripe for Change
The last parliamentary elections in 2016 occurred at a time when Iranians were optimistic about what negotiation and moderation with the West could bring their country. Pledging that closer relations with the United States and Europe would yield economic rejuvenation, reformist and moderate candidates won 41 percent of the seats in parliament, followed by conservatives at 29 percent and independents at 28 percent. This year's elections, however, will be held against the backdrop of exceptional economic and diplomatic difficulty for the Iranian government and its citizens. And this, along with intensifying U.S.-Iran relations, has increased the likelihood of a more hard-line leaning parliament.
Washington's "maximum pressure" campaign and resulting U.S. sanctions have heavily burdened Iran's economy over the past year. And some Iranians blame the current factions and politicians in their government (including parliament) for incurring those economic damages. Within this context, voters are more likely to cast their ballot for candidates who promise to offer something new and different, compared with the last four years — and the more nationalist and hawkish policies heralded by hard-liners and conservatives offer just that. Combined with the unprecedented rash of disqualifications of incumbents before the election, this environment means the next parliamentary election is more likely to be a showdown between conservative factions, and less of a contest between moderates and conservatives like in 2016. Indeed, in 44 of Iran's 208 constituencies, there are only conservative candidates running for parliamentary seats.
These conservatives have diverging views on how to conduct economic policy. They all generally oppose the more moderate, globally-connected policies of reformist-backed moderate President Hassan Rouhani. In terms of security and foreign policy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is full of mostly conservative factions (including some that lean hard-line), is also likely to have more allies in the upcoming parliament who will applaud a more aggressive approach to Iran's regional military stance and proxy warfare, as well as its more global struggle against U.S. efforts to contain Iran's regional influence.
A Key Vacancy
The appointment of the next speaker of parliament will provide one of the first glimpses into where Iranian politics might be headed following the Feb. 21 vote, and whether legislative debates will lean toward more hard-line or traditionalist policies. The speaker guides and referees the legislative agenda, and is generally viewed as one of the more important public-facing politicians in Iran.
The current speaker, Ali Larijani, is the longest-serving speaker in Iran's history. But after 11 years, Larijani has decided to step down and not run for re-election, leaving a vacuum likely to be filled by a more hard-line speaker to represent the country's likely more conservative parliament. Mohammad Baqher Qalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran, is currently one of the top front-runners poised to succeed Larijani. As the former head of Iran's air force, Qalibaf would be the most prominent former member of the IRGC to ascend to the speakership, which would solidify the military's significant influence in Iran's government should he indeed become speaker.
New Parliament, Same Problems
Regardless of how many seats various factions secure in the upcoming election, however, reformists, moderates, traditional conservatives and hard-line conservatives alike will all have to govern within the confines of a public that's increasingly angry about the diminished state of Iran's economy. The country's enduring economic morass, driven in part by U.S. sanctions, means that economic policies will dominate discussions in the new parliament. The likely strongest voices, the conservative factions, will mull a wide range of ways to mitigate the country's financial woes, ranging from the more populist to the more austere. But in this pursuit, legislators will face pressure from their constituents to prioritize near-term and immediate economic solutions as opposed to long-term economic structural solutions.
The diminished state of the country's economy has also fueled a general sense of political disillusionment against the government as a whole. And should this dissatisfaction lead to low turnout on Feb. 21, it could end up undermining the overall legislative authority of the next parliament by delegitimizing the electoral outcome.
Once the dust settles from the parliamentary polls, the next looming question regarding Iran's political future will be the 2021 presidential race. Larijani is among the powerful candidates who could potentially run, along with Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri; Saeed Jalili, the former leader of the Supreme National Security Council; member of parliament Ali Motahari; and Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi.
Rouhani's failure to free Iran from the crushing weight of U.S. sanctions could ultimately be his moderate allies' death knell in the 2021 presidential election.
To help ensure his moderate camp maintains popularity ahead of 2021, Rouhani has campaigned to help the reformist and moderate candidates still running for parliamentary seats by showcasing his government's economic achievements. He's also promised growth in the non-oil sector, as well as claimed his government has helped with the creation of new private sector companies and 3.6 million jobs. But while these talking points will help maintain the support of some of his stalwarts, the president's continued inability to fulfill his core promise of freeing Iran from the crushing weight of U.S. sanctions will continue to chip away at his popularity, and could ultimately be his moderate allies' death knell in the presidential election.